Music

Joe Ely: Streets of Sin

Andrew Gilstrap

Joe Ely

Streets of Sin

Label: Rounder
US Release Date: 2003-07-15
UK Release Date: 2003-07-21
Amazon
iTunes

Since getting his start way back around 1972 with the Flatlanders, Joe Ely has been a model of consistency as he's explored his straight-ahead blend of rock, blues, and country. He releases a solid album every couple of years, usually filled with his trademark Texas-laced storytelling, and he even releases a live album to kick off every decade (three so far, each exactly ten years apart).

That description automatically implies stasis, and seems to describe an artist who dips his bucket in the same part of the well every time out. That's not quite the case with Ely, though. True, he's found his basic style and stuck with it, but he's a rock-solid example of your traditional traveling troubadour (and does the world really need him to stray toward another synthesizer-obsessed Hi-Res?). There's great comfort in the fact that you can generally expect a certain amount of quality from a Joe Ely record, even if it isn't guaranteed to blow your doors off the hinges. Occasionally, he crafts a song or an album that justifies your faith (as he did with the help of flamenco guitarist Teye on 1995's Letter to Laredo) -- then he'll tour, release another album, and ride the cycle as it continues to offer what it may.

Where does Streets of Sin fit into all of this? It's Ely's first studio effort since 1998's Twistin' in the Wind, and the years have apparently put Ely into a reflective mood (despite Streets of Sin's hard-charging start). Otherwise, it's your standard Joe Ely record, balancing flashes of inspiration with standard Ely fare. Thematically, it's an album where every character seems to stare in the face of adversity. Song titles like "Fightin' for My Life", "I'm on the Run Again", and "A Flood on our Hands" kick the album off with three of its strongest songs, also setting the scene for Ely's characters to tell their hard-luck tales. Ely's narrators, though, rarely whine; instead of cursing the heavens, they just roll up their sleeves and get to work with a fresh reminder of life's little cruelties. But they're not beaten down. Hope still hangs in the air and the traditional escapes -- the road, love, one lucky break -- still hold their restorative powers. In the end, though, Ely's characters know that they hold their fates in their own hands -- a worldview that "All That You Need" sums up nicely: "For some it's just a livin' / But for us it's our whole life / If it kills me I'm gonna rake that dirt / And make a livin' out of toil and strife / The ways of the cities makes no sense / Strapped to dependency / I'd rather be sweatin' 'neath a clear blue sky / Plantin' cotton with my family".

Some of those tales end less happily than others. "Run Little Pony" (which sounds like it rides on a subtle variant of "Camptown Races"), about a man depending on the horse races for his break, ends up "lookin' thru cold hard steel". "Twisty River Bridge" tells the tale of a man who "woke up in St. James Divine / All wrapped up on plaster and twine" after wrecking his car and learning that "love, wine, and gasoline / Don't mix with jealousy". Throughout Streets of Sin, Ely tells these tales with his customary blend of no-fuss lyricism and storyteller's eye.

Ultimately, though, Streets of Sin loses steam about two-thirds of the way through. After a raucous, driving start (the defiant "Fightin' for My Life", followed by the nice counterpoint of "I'm on the Run Again", followed by the resigned gospel vibe of "A Flood on our Hands"), the album begins to settle into traditional Ely mode -- which isn't bad, it's just not very new. "95 South" makes good use of some rockabilly lead guitar, and "Wind's Gonna Blow You Away" is a neat mix of vintage Sun Records sound and accordions, and popping up throughout are light touches of Bakersfield country and Tex-Mex flavors. It's a shame there aren't more embellishments like that throughout the disc's songs. Still, there isn't a bad song to be found on Streets of Sin, but after a highly promising start, it's a little disappointing to hear the album find its familiar Ely groove and stick to it so faithfully. What you end up with is solid on a level that many artists can't attain for one album, much less over decades. If Streets of Sin suffers from anything, it's really only Ely's proven track record.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image